Leonardo"s Notebook by Mattheus Mei

I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Sarah Palin reinterpretting the Vice Presidency

"Once there were two brothers. One went away to sea; the other was elected vice president. And nothing was heard of either of them again."

- Thomas R. Marshall, Vice President (1913-1921)

Sarah Palin before she was providentially appointed to the Republican ticket was asked in July about the rumors going around and the "draft" Sarah movement to make her John McCain's running mate, her response to such a daring suggestion:
"As for that VP talk all the time, I'll tell you, I still can't answer that question until somebody answers for me what is it exactly that the VP does every day? I'm used to being very productive and working real hard in an administration. We want to make sure that that VP slot would be a fruitful type of position, especially for Alaskans and for the things that we're trying to accomplish up here for the rest of the U.S., before I can even start addressing that question."
The response in retrospection of her selection seems problematic to say the least, but it's not really. The constitutional guidelines for the Vice President are vague, the duties to simply become President if something happens to the sitting President and to Preside over the Senate for the term elected (wikipedia). Historically it's a fairly lacklustered position as evidenced by the quote above from VP Thomas Marshall, but he's not the first to complain about the job or to turn it down.

But as history has marched forward the job of the Vice President has become more detailed and nuanced than what the Constitution outlines so much so that the majority of Americans don't remember having a simple figurehead Vice President. Since the Roosevelt years (FDR) the Vice President has been intimately involved in Presidential affairs taking on more and more roles and duties with each successive Administration.

Enter then Mrs. Palin. In the month since making that statement she's now found herself vying for the very position that at that time she had no idea it's purpose or function. The McCain campaign has a knack, like the rest of us, for getting information from Wikipedia and so I'm sure she's been informed of the constitutional duties of the office. But what do we know about Sarah that will give us insight into what a Palin Vice Presidency will look like. What has she said in the one week since being appointed the Republican Nominee that we can glimpse of her position. Odds are she doesn't view the office as John Adams once did as "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived."

The Truth is that we don't know much, she hasn't said much either, but what we do know, what she has said can, and must, be taken along with the considerations for her appointment. Here I admit I'll have to rely on conjecture as much as fact as the McCain campaign has refused to discuss the issue of her vetting. I will say I'm not going to talk about any scandals or supposed scandals, I've done that elsewhere and will probably do it again, right now I want to focus and imagine Sarah Palin's interpretation of the Vice Presidency.

The Party

The Republican Party, according to Andrew Sullivan, has been subsumed by social conservatives and more than that by religiously motivated social conservatives. He's not alone in this belief.

This is the (natural?) result of the GOP's southern strategy popularized by Kevin Phillip's and the Nixon Administration. The strategy initially exploited the racial tensions of Southern Whites against the growing numbers of black democrats, but this soon changed as the South had a population and economic boom. Racial tensions, inspired by two hundred years of cultural and religious traditions, took a backseat to other socially conservative views such as abortion and gay rights as new capital and economic expansion saw a suburban boom because of white flight and the burgeoning of a fusion of that economic success with institutions of southern culture, especially religious institutions.

The strategy was a process that garnered Republicans 5 of the last 7 Presidencies and whittled away the Democratic Control of Congress until 1994 there was a Republican Revolution. Retrospectively in 2006 many viewed the 2000 and 2004 elections and their midterms as the crescendo of the Republican rise, something many on the right thought would never end.

As the party over the passed thirty years concentrated on it's Southern Strategy, the strategy began to change the Republican Party. And as the party itself began to change as they continued to emphasize the south - the southern brand of conservatism began being exported beyond the old confederate states. The party who initially supported the Equal Rights Amendment in 1960s now is staunchly against it. The party of limited government and restrained spending has been the perpetrator of a hitherto unbelievable expansion of the government and the national debt. The party that previously got us out of botched wars because of it's fundamental shift in ideology is now more likely to get us into wars. The most expressive example of the shift is that while campaigning Religious leaders impart blessing and imprimatur on Republican candidates and their conservative bona fides.

All of this brings us to August 29th 2008 and the announcement by John McCain that Sarah Palin, the Governor of Alaska would be his choice for running mate. It was a move that couldn't be avoided. He tried to pick his friend Joe, but the party elders and priests threatened to openly revolt. So with his back to the wall from a Democratic party in the ascendant and a Republican Party with a religious litmus test he made a gamble, and it was one that would draw more questions than the campaign was willing or was able to answer.

The Nominee
Everything in her worldview must be according to God's plan, and God's plan is revealed without any ambiguity whatsoever in the literal words of the Bible, Old and New Testament. There is no detail too small, no policy too obscure, that isn't vetted through this filter. This is the fundamentalist psyche in its most extreme form: think Bush but less intellectual. Think Bush's evangelical tradition combined with speaking in tongues and a belief in the Rapture. Yes, this is now conservatism.

- Andrew Sullivan

Sarah Palin, even according to Carl Rove, was a political pick not a governing pick. The initial reaction was that she was picked to not only counter the novelty of the Obama/Biden ticket, but that she was picked because the McCain campaign actually believed that she could appeal to women - and specifically the Hillary Clinton holdouts. In the week since her appointment it's become more evident that among the fairer sex she's generated curiosity amongst independent and liberal women, and shored up the (social) conservative base - irregardless of sex. The question the McCain camp hopes will be answered in their favor is if Palin can translate that curiosity into support. The key is - it's all about personal narrative. Much to the chagrin of Peggy Noonan, the Republican Party is putting all their eggs in the personal narrative basket - which they've not been able to harness in recent memory.

So what do we know about Sarah Palin, what's her personal narrative. Well the campaign points to the fact that she's a mother of five, she was a member of the PTA, she's a hockey mom, she has a son who's going to Iraq on September 11, she's pro-family and pro-life, she made the difficult decision of keeping a pregnancy even knowing that the child would be born with Downs Syndrome, that she was a small town mayor before becoming Governor of Alaska and being one of the most popular Governor's in the country. She's a reformer and stood up to big interests and her own party, she's a maverick.

Peggy Noonan was right to be concerned about the Republican party running on narrative, the reactions have run the gambit between saintly admiration and derision. The narrative holds within the conservative base - but doesn't grow legs in the population at large. She's appealing to the base because she represents not necessarily the reformer that they celebrate, but the religious style candidate that McCain is not. She's rabidly pro-life, and pro-hetero-families, she's pro-drilling, anti-global warming, she's pro-creationism. Her record as a reformer is not only questionable but fastly becoming a farce. She's a devout evangelical who's theology goes beyond informing her policy to dictating it, but only when it's convenient for her. She certainly wouldn't be considered any type of 'cafeteria' evangelical in the broader sense but her assuming an active public role does buck the values of the conservative leadership - but it's something they're willing to overlook this year as they face off against the novelty of Obama's ticket.

So we know she's a devout evangelical, exceedingly devout speaking of events and policy in the context of God's will and Providence. But what will a Palin Vice Presidency be modeled after? Christian Marriage.

The LORD God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him."
- Genesis 2:18

It goes back to Sarah's original question of what a Vice President does, and the constitutional and historical development of the office. The short answer is that she will view the position through the evangelical lens and do for John McCain exactly as 1 Peter says "Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives." This is why John McCain blindly picked Sarah Palin, this is why the conservative base is enamored with Sarah Palin, and this is what she's doing so far on the trail and will do in the Naval Observatory.

She'll not make policy decisions but only repeat John McCain's. Granted John McCain's policies are being dictated by those who embrace the ideology of Mrs. Palin. She'll enforce his policies in the Senate where possible, and she'll do it dotingly and fiercely as a mother protecting would protecting her family. She has thus far in the campaign, although we've only heard her in two nationally televised speeches, fulfilled this role by doting on Mr. McCain and presenting herself as humble and blessed to be the helper to such an honourable man and reflecting the qualities he wished to be reflected. But it's perhaps not so much her words which on paper that intimate this as their delivery and context with her personality and personal beliefs.

Her Dayton Ohio Speech,

The full text is here. The Republican Convention Speech,

The full text is here.

But as a political pick and not a governing pick (as Carl Rove has suggested) she fulfills the political role of Vice President - of going to state funerals and weddings as Truman once suggested about the Vice Presidency. Such a pick makes it easy for her to preside over the Senate and sit in on meetings but it's doubtful John McCain will or can (considering her total personhood) delegate many authorities to Mrs. Palin.

There's a legitimate argument that the Republicans don't want to have, and Feminists don't want to hear about the "3 AM Phone Call," which doesn't necessarily have anything to do with motherhood or feminimity - the Republicans admit she's a political pick and therefore will serve no purpose in a McCain administration - why would they want her to answer. She's no Glen Close. And that comparison helps us transition then away from simply examining a Palin Vice Presidency to the constitutions central objective of the Veep - to become President.

Nate Silver has stated, and I've pointed out that the modern image of the Vice President that most relates to the Public's shared memory is not of Dick Cheney in a bunker but of Lyndon Johnson taking the oath of office as President of the United States after the assassination of John Kennedy. It's worth repeating.

This picture embodies what is perhaps the essential difference between the qualifications for the presidency and the qualifications for the vice presidency. In a perfect world, we would all like a president who is Ready on Day One (TM); it is not uncommon for a newly-elected president to face a major crisis almost immediately upon taking office. But more commonly, a president takes the Oath of Office under relatively calm waters, allowing them something of a learning curve.

On the other hand, when a vice president takes over for a president, the nation is necessarily undergoing a crisis, because the death (or resignation) of a president is perhaps as traumatic an event as can reasonably be imagined (in the "best" case resulting from a slowly-developing illness, and the worst, an attack by terrorists or foreign adversaries).

From Lincoln though Clinton, Americans have frequently been willing to gamble on a relatively inexperienced President, exchanging some assurances of near-term readiness for longer-term upside (what might be described as "vision"). But the optimal skill set for a vice president is somewhat different. "Vision" hardly matters; a vice president taking over for a president will not get to name his own cabinet, and will initially at least be left to execute upon somebody else's agenda. Instead, the readiness component is rendered more important.

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